What is Rock Climbing?

If you’re already a climber, this question might seem obvious. But, to the general population, climbing is still an abstract and “crazy” activity. This outline is intended to educate the public on what it is that climbers actually do, and to help dispel some of the common misconception about the sport of rock climbing.

Rock climbing is simply the act of climbing a face of rock that is steep and technical enough to require the added safety of ropes and protection. There are many different types and styles of rock climbing which will be discussed below, however the basic concepts and logistics hold true for all of them.

Different Types of Climbing

There are many different types of climbing, however we will focus primarily on the sport of rock climbing, as opposed to Mountaineering (using ice axe and crampons to move over glaciated ice fields and summit large mountains) or Scrambling (moving over low angle rock to a summit or peak). Within the sport of rock climbing there are multiple disciplines and styles. Below is a basic list and description of each of these.

Free Climbing:

Most non-climbers will mistake this term for climbing without ropes, however free-climbing refers to the act of climbing the rock face without using the ropes, protection, webbing and other equipment to assist or “aid” the ascent of the rock. When free climbing climbers use ropes and gear, but only to protect themselves in the event of a fall.  Free-climbing is essentially what all climbers are doing when they are physically climbing with only their own physical skills to get them up the rock.

Aid Climbing: 

Is a term applied when climbers decide to use gear, slings, or other devices to bear their weight while ascending the rock. Aid climbing is a typical practice for “Big Walls”, or routes that are so long in length that there are multiple sections that the climber cannot physically “free-climb”. Within the category of aid climbing, there are multiple terminologies and tactics, however the basic concept is that the climber is using the assistance of their gear to get them through a section of the climb.

Traditional Climbing: 

Traditional climbing, or “Trad” climbing, refers to climbing natural cracks or features on the rock face, in which the climber can place removable protection in order to protect the ascent. Traditional climbing requires the climber to use gear such as camming devices and wired stoppers, to temporarily place in the rock to protect them if they fall. This style also requires different climbing techniques such as “jamming” your hands and feet in the cracks to secure your position and help you progress upwards.

Sport Climbing: 

Sport climbing is probably the most popular type of rock climbing. This term refers to a rock face that has pre-placed bolts in the rock, in which the climber can simply clip as they move past them to protect a potential fall. These bolts are placed into the rock during the first ascent, and if done correctly do not need to be replaced for 30 or more years. Bolts are placed on rock faces where traditional protection cannot be used, so the typical sport climb is on a sheer rock face. However, there are multiple climbs that combine both sport and trad climbing. Many longer climbs will have sections of natural cracks and features that can be protected with gear, but also have sections of sheer faces which require bolts as protection.


Bouldering is probably the fastest growing sector of the rock climbing community. This is mostly due to the simplicity and low cost of getting into this activity and the accessibility and amount of climbable boulders. All you need for bouldering is a crash pad, shoes and a chalk bag. The act of bouldering refers to anytime a climber, without a rope, climbs up a large boulder or face. If the boulderer falls, they will land on a crash pad (there is typically a spotter as well). Most boulder “problems” are not high enough to sustain serious injuries after a fall, however some boulderers, depending on their comfort level, will climb upwards of 30 feet or more without a rope.


Free-soloing is what a non-climber would typically mistake as “free climbing”. Free-soloing is the ascension of a route without a rope or any protection. A fall during free-soloing could result in death. This is an aspect of the sport that should be reserved for only the most daring and experienced individuals.

How Do Climbers Get Up the Rock?

One of the most common questions for a non-climber is, “How do you get up that thing?” Well, as you can see from the different types of climbing, there are many ways in which a climber ascends the rock. However, there are some commonalities between each type.

Unless bouldering or free-soloing, a climber will need to have a harness around their waste and thighs. They will then tie the rope directly into their harness. As they ascend the rock they will clip the rope through carabiners (which are full strength aluminum links), which are attached to either the traditional gear that they have placed, or a bolt. The other end of the rope is connected to their partner, who is running the rope through a “belay” device that is connected to their own harness. If the “lead” climber were to take a fall, they would fall past their last piece of protection (that the rope is running through), until the rope goes tight and catches their fall. The “belay” device creates friction, so the partner can easily tighten and secure the rope, not allowing the “lead” climber to fall too far beyond their last piece of protection.

When the “lead” climber reaches the top of the “pitch” (refers to length of rope or route), they will proceed to anchor themselves directly into the rock (with natural protection or pre-placed bolts). They will then proceed to bring the other climber up, switching their roles as the belayer. The “second” then “cleans” the route, by removing the protection and carabiners on the way up. Once they rejoin each other, the climbers will either continue up the climb until the get to the top, or “rappel” (lower themselves), off the climb.

This is obviously a very basic description, but hopefully it will give you a sense of how two climbers ascend the rock together.

What Do the Different Grades/Ratings Mean?

In climbing there is a fairly complicated grading/rating system. In order to simplify it for the non-climber, here are the basics:

Grades are basically the commitment level of a climb. A 50 foot sport climb would be Grade I, a full-day multiple pitch climb could be Grade III, and a multi-day “big wall” could be Grade “V”. Each “pitch” or rope length of the climb gets its own rating and class. Rock climbing starts at 5.0 (or 5th Class).

Here’s a quick explanation of “Classes”: 1st Class means walking, 2nd Class means hiking a steep hill, 3rd Class means scrambling up steep rocks, 4th Class means scrambling over even steeper rocks where a fall could be serious and some climbers will want to use rope. 5th Class is rock climbing with ropes.

So, now that we have that down, rock climbing ratings start at 5.0 and go through 5.15. If you were to generalize climbing ratings like a ski slope they would look like this. Very easy: 5.0-5.4, Beginner: 5.5-5.7, Intermediate: 5.8-5.10, Advanced: 5.11-5.13, Insane: 5.14-5.15. However, the tricky part about climbing is that the ratings are all relatively subjective, and they break down into even more finite sub categories. Once the Rating goes to 5.10, it is then broken down, as 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, and 5.10d, before it reaches 5.11a.

Now that you are thoroughly confused, bouldering has its own set of ratings. This rating system starts at V0 and goes to something like V20. These are based on the single hardest move on the entire “problem”. The shorter nature of a boulder problem required the adoption of a different rating system, since harder more powerful moves are common in this type of climbing. This also means that some boulder problems have far exceeded the physical difficulty in a single move or set of moves than other rock climbs.

What Are Some Common Ethics of Climbing?

Environmental Ethics: As a climbing community we have a responsibility to take care of the lands in which we recreate. Luckily, climbers in general are environmentally conscious individuals, and practice responsible ethics when they’re at a climbing area. This type of responsibility is common in most recreational user groups, since they are attracted to the sport to begin with because of their love and passion for the outdoors. Taking care of these natural environments should be second nature for climbers. The climbing community at large has done an amazing job of getting together to clean up climbing and non-climbing areas alike, restore damaged trails, educating the public on “leaving no trace” practices, organizing as a community to maintain access to climbing areas and raise funds to support local efforts, and help other land managers or user groups in their efforts.

Some main themes to always remember when out climbing are:

  1. Stay on the established trail. Don’t cut switchbacks, which can cause trail erosion.
  2. Pick up after yourself and pick up other trash you find, and pack it out with you. Leave the climbing area cleaner than you found it.
  3. Respect others. Yelling, scattering gear all over the climbing area, etc are disrespectful to other climbers trying to enjoy the serenity of an area.
  4. Be careful of sensitive plants or animals. Keep food well stored and out of the way of being eaten by animals. Don’t crush plants with your climbing pack or crash pad.

What Are Some Myths About Climbing?

Climbers are Crazy and Extreme: For non-climbers, climbing a sheer cliff face seems like a dangerous and risky sport. This can be true in some cases, however for the most part, climbing can be as safe as the climber chooses to make it. In fact, compared to other outdoor activities, climbing has a relatively low rate of injuries and deaths. If a climber wants to have a safe and enjoyable experience climbing, they can choose to do an easy route and “top-rope” (having the rope secured above), the climb to not risk a large fall.

Climbers are Young, Uneducated and Disrespectful: A common mischaracterization of climbers is that they are all radical kids with a disregard for everyone and everything. This is probably a similar mischaracterization of skateboarding or other “extreme” activities. The reality is that climbers come from all walks of life. The climbing community is comprised of doctors, lawyers, teachers, students, teenagers, and grandparents. Some people will take their 2 year olds out climbing, and there have been climbers as old as 83 still lead climbing 5.10! The amazing thing about climbing is that it is for everyone. It doesn’t matter what socioeconomic background you come from or how old you are, the climbing community is bonded together by their love of climbing.

Climbers shoot bolts into the rock as they ascend: Or, an even better myth is that climbers shoot grappling hooks to get up the rock. If you’ve read everything above, you’ll know this is not true. Where bolts are required, climbers will put a bolt into the rock every 30 years or so. Drills are not required every time someone goes climbing, they are in fact, only necessary when developing a new route that needs bolts or in the replacement of an unsafe/older route.

How Many People Rock Climb?

This number is hard to determine. But if you were to poll the individuals that consider themselves rock climbers, in San Diego alone, there would be close to 3,000. If you look across the US and across the world, there are literally 100’s of thousands of climbing enthusiasts. Climbing is not the fringe sport that it used to be 30 years ago. The demographics of climbers and the growth of the outdoor industry is proof that this sport is growing rapidly and that rock climbing is becoming more and more a legitimate sport and outdoor activity.

How Can I Get Into Rock Climbing?

Rock climbing tends to have a stigma of being a scary or intimidating sport to get into, but it’s really quite simple to get started. The easiest way to get into climbing is to take a class at your local climbing gym. Vertical HoldMesa Rim andSolid Rock are San Diego’s climbing gyms. Most gyms offer a free belay class, or a more comprehensive paid class. Gyms rent equipment as well, so you can try it out before you even buy your own gear. The gym is also a great way to meet climbing partners. Joining a non-profit organization like ACSD is also a great way to meet climbing partners, learn about what’s happening in the climbing community, and help out with volunteer projects, attend great events and more. Local outdoor retailers, such as REIA16 and Nomad Ventures also have great product knowledge, and offer free and paid clinics for climbing. Local guide services such as Uprising AdventuresWilderness OutingsVertical AdventuresREI Outdoor School and Positive Adventures also offer everything from basic 1 day intro classes to multi-day advanced courses.